‘Scientific’ policymaking in a ‘complex’ world – what can we learn from the Finnish experience?

ylostalo picture 2Hanna Ylöstalo

Policy solutions, interventions and reform revolve around specific societal diagnoses of the problems that policymaking is supposed to solve. One of the most influential societal diagnoses informing contemporary policy reform seems to be the following: the world has become more ‘complex’, problems have become ‘wicked’ ie intractable, and all policy solutions involve a great deal of ‘uncertainty’. This popular, but rather vague and unhistorical notion has sprung various new approaches to solve diverging political problems. These approaches are often legitimised with scientific knowledge and methods.  

Although the interest in scientific knowledge as a basis for policymaking has grown tremendously in the 2000s and sprung various new approaches, the role of knowledge varies within policy reforms. I argue that contemporary knowledge-policy relations are characterised by profound tensions between ‘good governance’ and ‘good knowledge’. The former refers to governance as constructed in public management literature. In this perspective, governance is perceived as a practical tool, a means to systematically support policymaking in a complex world under conditions of uncertainty. The latter, good knowledge, is context-specific and connected (although not consistently) with good governance.

To investigate this premise, I analysed the implementation of two contemporary policy reforms in Finland – strategic governance reform and a culture of experimentation – in order to illustrate tensions between good governance and good knowledge in policy implementation. Strategic governance is a form of managerial governance. It aims to make government policymaking more strategic by, for example, narrowing down policy objectives and explicitly aligning them with fiscal objectives. A culture of experimentation is a form of experimental policy, which is a way of developing, testing, and evaluating novel policies using experimental techniques. Both have been implemented in Finland in the 2010s. What unites strategic governance reform and a culture of experimentation is their attempt to govern a complex and uncertain world through scientific knowledge.

In the case of strategic governance, the tensions between good governance and good knowledge result from simultaneously striving towards evidence-based and efficient policymaking. On the one hand, strategic governance is based on the conviction that political decisions should be systematically supported by knowledge. On the other hand, excessive knowledge is seen as a burden, hampering efficient policymaking and implementation. This tension has led to the perception of good knowledge as compliant to the demands of strategic political leadership. Good knowledge must enable, not constrain, political action.

Similarly, implementation of a culture of experimentation involves constant negotiations between good governance and good knowledge. From the perspective of good governance, policy experiments are seen as a means to produce policy-relevant, depoliticised what-works knowledge, which is based on scientific methods. A culture of experimentation, however, also entails a conception of knowledge as processual and incremental. While such knowledge sometimes meets the demands of good governance, it sometimes does not, for example, due to tight time-frames of contemporary policymaking. On such occasions, good knowledge is ‘adapted’ to serve the purposes of good governance.

These tensions show that, rather than being fixed, the role of scientific knowledge within policy reforms is constantly negotiated and contingent, and is often constrained by governance. However, one does not necessarily have to exclude the other. Instead of a practical tool to solve real-life problems in an increasingly complex world, governance can also be seen as a political system that involves new forms of public engagement with politics and knowledge-production. This opens up possibilities for different forms of knowledge, as well as more participatory forms of knowledge production.

In order to materialise these possibilities, the relationships between knowledge, society, and policy should be seen as open, contingent, and involving interdependent actors in multiple forums and arenas — instead of perceiving the ‘world out there’ as ambiguously complex and in need of management and control. The role of political science within this process is, at least, to critically engage with the scientific discourses and practices that governments are currently implementing.

This blog post was originally published on the Discover Society – Policy and Politics blog on  5 February 2020.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Ylöstalo, Hanna (2019) ‘The role of scientific knowledge in dealing with complex policy problems under conditions of uncertainty‘, Policy & Politics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557319X15707904457648

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Can experience be evidence? Craft knowledge and evidence-based policing

A new epistemology of evidence-based policy

Is it time to give up on evidence-based policy? Four answers

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